India From the Outside In

I've been writing about India for a number of years now, both online and off. At venues like my personal blog Popagandhi, my online travel show, and in publications like Geographical and Asian Geographic magazines, India — and everything to do with it — has always been an anchor in my writing, photography, and indeed, my life. As a constant visitor to India, I like to think I more than travel through it. Done with the tourist trail by my third or fourth long-drawn Indian journey, I began to think of it as home. I'm not desi by any stretch of imagination, even though I — and many desis I know — have come to think of myself as something of an "honorary desi". Yet I constantly found myself thinking: what exactly does it mean to be Indian?

You see, I'm Chinese Singaporean, and I'm as Chinese and Singaporean as one gets. My grandfather was born in Shantou province in China, my grandmother a Chinese from Malaysia, and we were all born and bred in Singapore. An upbringing in an "in-between" sort of country, one like Singapore or Malaysia, gave me a different perspective on India, even as a child. Every aspect of my life was intimately connected to India, Indians, and/or their descendants. My grandparents spoke a muddling of Tamil, even a little Malayalam, because in those days you had to speak everything, even if everything meant English, Japanese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Malayalam and Malay. When I asked for ice cream, I sometimes got kulfi, kesar flavour.

Neighbours, school mates, boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends, colleagues, school captains... were, at various times, either from India, or their grandparents were. What does that have to do with anything? Lots, I believe. Because I lived in such close proximity to Indian culture, knew how to tie a saree (and in fact wore many a saree to Singapore's annual Racial Harmony Day in school), dated quite a number of Indians, considered dosa and kulfi to be my favourite foods, and ate regularly with my hands, that means that I was very rarely shocked or overwhelmed by anything India threw at me — it was all near and familiar.

Whether it was witnessing a puja, relishing delicious pani puris, marvelling at kolam patterns, finding myself unexcited by the idea of cows walking on roads (somewhat a tourist spectacle, apparently), walking between two corpses en route to cremation in the Ganges, or sifting in and out of different Indian regional languages, religions, customs; it was all familiar. I had a way of relating them all to things I had learned, or experienced, or knew to be true and real and normal. This influenced my work later on in my professional life, for there was no way I could relate to the cliched portrayals of India the Exotic, India the Poor, India the Strange, or India The I Don't Really Get This Country But I'll Write About It Anyway. India was more than that; it was a sort of home. And it had embraced me in a way no other country has, possibly not even my own.

I was 18 when I went to India for the first time to spend a month in Kolkata. I've been back to India numerous times ever since, each time at two or three months at a stretch. I consider India to be my second education — after all, I did spend all my time at university in Singapore plotting my return the moment exams ended. As a perennial globetrotter, I have spent the better half of the last few years jetting all about the world in my career as a freelance writer and photographer, but it is to India that I am happiest returning to.

When I say I wonder what exactly it means to be Indian, I say so only because one of the greatest things about this country and its culture is how fluid and plural identity is. The minute I put on a salwar kameez in any major Indian city, I am automatically one of you — Manipuri, Naga, Khasi, or a close brethren, maybe Nepali. I am shown more kindred-ship travelling through the tribes of Northeast India, as I have, than in any big city of China. A case of mistaken identity often makes them believe me to be one of theirs, and no amount of vehement insistence would change their minds. More strikingly, when I am in Kolkata's Tangra district, or in any of Bangalore or Kolkata's Chinese hair and beauty salons, I am at once impressed — and puzzled — by these Chinese people who are, like me, Chinese, but with whom I have no common language or experience: the Chinese of Tangra, the Chinese in Bangalore, mostly descended from the same coastal areas in China that my grandfather came from, and we even share the same surname. And yet they, are Indian. Indian Idol contestant Meiyang Chang comes to mind immediately. And if my grandfather had boarded a different boat, and came to Calcutta of the 1940s instead, could this be me? Might I have been a Patsy Chan, heiress of a Chinese hair salon in Tangra? Maybe.

Outside India, those who do not know Indian culture are quick to paint the entire country (or region) with the same brush. In Singapore and Malaysia, quite ignorantly, because most of our experiences with Indians have been with the local Tamils, we think Tamils to be the only Indians, and think nothing of asking "do you speak Indian", as though there was a language called Indian (they mean Tamil, of course). In our minds, unschooled as we were on this topic, being Indian always meant being Hindu. The saffron brigade might nod approvingly, but I cannot think of many other countries in the world with such an intimate coexistence of identities. I know Indians who are Tamil, Malayalee, Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi, Assamese, Khasis, Garos, Jaintias (of the Jaintia Hills), Bengalis, and yes, Chinese. They are Christian (and then Protestant, Catholic, Syrian Christian, Orthodox), Jain, Hindu, Parsi, Muslim, Buddhist. One need only get onboard a Mumbai local train from CST or Churchgate at rush hour, and witness the crush of humanity — and India's incredible diversity, exemplified by one of its most vibrant cities — coexist, come together, try to fit into spaces that don't quite exist, lend each other a helping hand, shrug off inconveniences, and even sing and chop vegetables together with strangers who, quite by fate rather than design, become a part of each other's lives (as witnessed in the ladies' carriage anyway).

As an outsider, India has been the most welcoming of countries. Being an outsider also afforded me some luxuries my upper middle class Mumbai or Kolkata-born NRI (female) friends could never dream of. I've gone, in the name of work and mostly adventure, crawling through coal mines in Meghalaya, hanging off Mumbai locals, driving autorickshaws to Pondicherry, running about in the rain in Cherrapunjee, trekking about the vicinity of Darjeeling, wandering about Bhubaneswar and Bihar alone, wading knee-deep in water in Sudder Street, smoking with Shivaites in Orissa, hanging out on film sets in Chennai, and been caught amidst the crush of chariot juggernauts of the Puri Rath Yatra. With no dietary restriction, I've developed a taste for specific Indian regional cuisines that makes me pine for India's vast culinary riches: freshly made idlis and dosas, Mangalorean seafood, Keralan Syrian Christian curries, Udupi vegetarian cuisine, Bengali fish preparations and misti doi, Khasi pork stews, Parsi baked goods, that strange genre known as Indian-Chinese, and all the vada pavs, bhelpuris and misal pavs of Mumbai.

Perhaps it's time I got to share my India with you, and what I see of it from the perspective of somebody on the outside peering in. I won't be the first, but I might be the first Chinese person writing in English, and almost exclusively, about India. We'll start with Indian-Chinese food, and then with Chinese-Indian food, since it's a topic close to so many of your hearts (chowmein and egg drop soup!), and hindi chini bhai bhai and all that.
Adrianna Tan is a Singaporean writer and photographer who must have been desi in a past life. She has travelled across India extensively and won't shut up about India and India travel on her blogs, and